The start of the performance was marked by a piercing scream emanating from behind us. This was followed by the performer shuffling into the room arms outstretched and with a frozen grimace on her face. She sat at the grand piano and started to hit octaves with her left hand while singing a somewhat mad, cabaret-like tune in German. The man sitting on my left found it very amusing (well, it was) and was giggling for the duration of the piece. We were at Westbeth, an artist community on the far west side of Manhattan.
Some forty people had gathered in the Community Room on this Friday night to experience the eclectic performance put together by Beth. The group itself looked interesting and it’s quite clear that one had to have somewhat special interests for this kind of music to be here. Initially, especially, the average age was quite high (“We’re the youngest here,” observed Yoko) and there was even a group of sweet octogenarian ladies, but later several younger people floated in. If we no longer were the youngest, at least I coming here from the office without changing looked the most conventional.
Westbeth has been around for more than four decades. Opened in 1970 in the West Village neighbourhood, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and J.M. Kaplan Foundation, Westbeth offers both a space for exhibiting a wide range of arts, as well as affordable housing to both established and emerging artists in different fields. The complex consists of 13 buildings surrounding a pleasant courtyard. The Community Room is a space for music and other performing arts by the resident artists and visitors. We were here at the invitation of tonight’s star, singer Beth Griffith, with whom Yoko collaborated in the context of the dancer Sachiyo Ito’s 30th artistic anniversary performance last year.
The program consisted of a number of avant-garde songs, like the starting number, Recitativaria (1971/72) for singing harpsichordist by Mauricio Kagel (the harpsichord effect had been created by placing strips of paper between the chords of the grand piano) and another rather humorous piece for voice and piano, Orthopädische Lieder (1994) by Susanne Meis. Beth performed the John Cage piece The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) in which the pianist Jeffrey Middleton only used the piano as a percussion instrument banging on its sides with his hands. In Dennis Báthory-Kitsz’ composition I Lift My Heavy Heart (2007) she was joined by Andrew Bolotowsky on flute and Bern Nix on guitar. This rather serious piece contained some beautiful segments in which the voice and flute intermingled in fugue-like lines.
Two quite lovely pieces both from 2004 were by Noah Creshevsky who was present in the audience. He explained that, as primarily a composer of electronic music, he had not collaborated with many performers, but had he met people like tonight’s leading star earlier, this might have been different. In Psalm XXIII Beth sang against taped music which contained both her own recorded voices and other electronic instruments. The angelic choirs typical to church music were largely replaced by sighs. The combined effect of the carefully interwoven voices and beautiful melodies was almost heavenly. The second piece was Once, the title of which referred to that each of the sounds on the playback tape created by various instruments ranging from violin to trombone were only played once.
The first part of the concert ended with another light number, Country Time (1979) by Beth Anderson, in which Beth Griffith recited a rhythmic poem about things associated with the countryside accompanied by her own banging on a podium imitating the sounds of horse hooves and her sister producing twittering sounds on a small whistle.
During the intermission, half of the audience rushed to the courtyard for apparently badly needed smokes.
The latter part of the concert consisted of only one lengthy piece by John McGuire, Beth’s husband. A Cappella (1995/97) was also for voice and playback. It was fast paced and rhythmic flowing smoothly and timelessly as if over an African vastness. It had a hypnotic quality that lulled us to a sweet almost trancelike feeling. The rhythm as well as the repeated call-and-response patterns, which Beth performed singing invariably high and low, did have an African feeling. The piece went on for a long while, but that was an important dimension of it and how we came to enjoy it.
After this interesting and enjoyable performance we walked up Washington Street, by the High Line, past all the fashionable and funky terrace restaurants bustling with life on the balmy July evening. People dressed up for parties were hurrying past to meet their dates. A bald man was shouting rudely to his date, a young woman in a yellow party dress, that it was over between them if she jumped into that taxi (I wished she would have done so). Beefy bouncers were screening youth for entry into the clubs from which loud music streamed out each time the door was opened for a lucky entrant. We reflected on how different this place must have been when Westbeth opened. Still a decade or two ago, this area in the northwest corner of West Village was a dangerous no-man’s land; now it was the home of high-end fashion boutiques, restaurants and wealth. How lucky the artists were to have their own place there now.